New York City’s largest prison is falling apart. Inmates fashion shivs from the jail’s aging radiators. Correction officers profit off a thriving drug trade. Beatings and sexual assaults are on the rise.
Following a series of high-profile scandals and lawsuits, a growing number of New York politicians say the Rikers Island Correctional Facility is beyond repair. But closing one of the world’s most populous prisons is a complicated process, one that is already dividing New York politicians along old fault lines.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has recently emerged as the most vocal opponent of a proposal by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to replace Rikers with a series of smaller prisons spread throughout the city’s five boroughs. He says closing the prison is a matter of money.
“There is a certain appeal to the notion of starting over,” de Blasio told reporters during a Tuesday press conference. “The problem is, it would cost many billions of dollars, and I have to look out for what’s feasible, and I have to look out for the taxpayer.”
De Blasio’s longtime political rival, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has come out in favor of closing the prison. The two Democrats have a long-running feud that hit its peak last summer when de Blasio accused Cuomo of seeking “revenge [on New York City] for some perceived slight.”
De Blasio and Cuomo have a history of adopting opposing opinions and then refusing to alter them once the other has made his position clear.
“You could design a facility that would be much easier to operate for the corrections officials, and it would be safer for the inmates,” Cuomo said Sunday, throwing his support behind Mark-Viverito’s proposal. “Rikers is a big problem, and the council [speaker], when she talks about closing Rikers, that’s a big solution.”
Neither side has put a price tag on the plan to close the city’s largest prison. A de Blasio spokesperson told The Daily Beast that the office had not come up with a cost estimate. De Blasio is also advocating for a new Brooklyn streetcar that will cost an estimated $2.5 billion.
“Rikers Island has come to represent our worst tendencies, and our biggest failures,” Mark-Viverito said during her State of the City address last week. "For too long, Rikers has stood not for more justice, but for revenge. We must explore how we can get the population of Rikers to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality."
Rikers’ ranks are already shrinking. With a population of nearly 10,000, it is less crowded today than in decades past, when crime was high on New York’s streets. But despite an increased budget and a smaller inmate population, crime is on the rise in the prison complex.
From 2007 to 2014, the rate of assault infractions spiked 65 percent inside the prison complex, though the annual city’s spending per inmate increased more than 42 percent, from $67,565 to $96,232, a study by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer found.
The most drastic change during the seven-year period, however, had more to do with prison guards than prisoners. Allegations of correction officers using force against inmates “nearly tripled” from 2007 to 2014. Sexual assaults are also on the rise at Rikers, where inmates filed 116 complaints of sexual abuse in 2014. Just two of those complaints were passed on to the police.
Activists for criminal justice reform say Mark-Viverito’s more localized approach could improve quality of life in the city’s jails.
"Moving to smaller facilities provides the possibility of better accountability, smaller populations, better programming of services, and easier family visits—all of which could help reduce violence and improve outcomes,” Tina Luongo, attorney in charge of the Criminal Practice at the Legal Aid Society, told The Daily Beast.
Mark-Viverito’s proposal has other allies, including Stringer, who voiced support for a Rikers closure in 2014.
“Rikers Island was supposed to be a model penitentiary,” Stringer told The Daily Beast. “However, practically from the day it opened, Rikers has been a blot on our city. At a moment when crime has fallen to historic lows and the jail population continues to decline, the time has come for the city to explore a long-term plan to shutter this troubled institution.”
Chief among the plan’s costs are the new prisons that would be constructed throughout the city. In crowded New York, where residents routinely oppose new homeless shelters in their neighborhoods, it is difficult to imagine people welcoming a new prison on their block.
The city’s prison problem does not end at Rikers. While the massive facility is New York’s main correctional complex, other detention areas have earned reputations of their own.
The Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, an 800-bed facility that holds overflow from Rikers, has the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest prison ship. Two correction officers at the facility, a massive barge parked offshore from the Bronx, were recently arrested after they allegedly recruited inmates to beat another prisoner. One of the correction officers was affiliated with the Bloods gang, an assistant district attorney testified in court.
In Manhattan, a short-term holding facility nicknamed “the Tombs” has its own history of violence. The jail, intended for inmates awaiting trial, made history in the 1960s for its filthy conditions and rumors of guard brutality. In 2015, reports of violence were on the rise again, up 15 percent from the previous year, Vice reported.
Facilities like the Tombs and the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center seldom make headlines, unless a particularly egregious crime has occurred within their walls. But reports of correction officer brutality at these smaller jails underscore that prison violence is not a Rikers-exclusive issue in the city.
Even if Rikers is boarded up and replaced with smaller facilities, can the city end the culture of abuse that has made the prison a political poison?
“We can’t embrace something until we figure out where we would then put the inmates, how we would pay for it, would it be logistically viable,” de Blasio said. “We don’t have any of those answers, so a well-intended concept is far from the point that we could actually act on it.”